Wednesday, May 12, 2004
In my last real entry I talked about chronic supply-side staffing problems. There's little most organizations can do about that since the killer factors are usually cultural (example: most senior nurses have as many valuable skills as senior physicians, but get paid less; if you wanted to address the nurse shortage by paying what the skills were actually worth, you'd have to internalise those costs and that would make it harder to compete).
The demand side is something you can address if you're willing to face your organization's limitations squarely and aggressively. Most organizations have hiring blind spots, and since hiring decisions are by far the most important category of decision you'll make, shortcomings here are the worst, sometimes even fatal.
There are a bunch of hiring blind spots. If an organization has an H.R. department, they start getting constrained by standards, which are usually designed not to get the best candidate, but to avoid hiring the worst. If they don't have a dedicated or empowered H.R. group and they're doing it seat of the pants, they tend to miss opportunities such as auditions, simulations of the actual kind of work a hire will do. And seat of the pants hiring managers tend to be in a hurry, rushing the process for what seem to be good reasons, but rushing can lead someone to overlook the right candidate or not investgate fully any of them.
There's another blind spot, harder to explain or to fix. Most organizations have constellations of unexamined behaviors that together, when they have a chance to hire for a certain position, lead them to either make the same hiring mistake over and over again, or to make a crazy, reactive pinball path through every mistake you can make. Baseball organizations are notorious for this and they make great examples.
AN EXALTATION OF BUMS
The Brooklyn and then Los Angeles Dodgers had a 73-year history of disability in the hiring of effective third basemen. If you know a lot about early baseball history, skip the rest of this paragraph. In the 19th century and very early 20th century, there were times when the ball was very dead and there was a lot of bunting even when the ball was lively, because the league would juice the ball once seasons and then deflate its resiliency another as a way of managing player salaries and fan interest. A lot of balls stayed in the infield, and bunting or pulling the ball down the third base line was a reasonable strategy because the third baseman, of all the infielders, has on the average the longest throw to first. So fielding was relatively important for third basefolk, especially compared to now. And as a manager, that meant you would be willing to give up a little offense to get that defense (the way it was with shortstops in the 70s and 80s and until the advent of the Alex Rodriguez / Derek Jeter /Nomar Garciaparra models whose hitting seems to justify their lesser defense).
So for much of baseball history, the "talent" pool of third basemen tended to be a toxic waste dump with a few gems floating on top. The Dodgers seemed to have decided early on to resign themselves to that, and rather than rage against the situation, to just accept it. Their roster of third basemen from 1900 to 1972 is a trail of tears, a long parade to the graveyard, a bad 1950s teen death song. In those 73 seasons, 42 different players were the Bums' main third sacker for a year. By "main", I mean the person who played the most games at that position for the team that year.
With two exceptions, the mediocre but beloved by fans Jersey Joe Stripp (1932-37, sort of a Joey Cora of his time) and the mediocre but beloved by fans Billy Cox (1948-53), no player was the main third baseman for the Dodgers for five or more years. Remarkably, there were 27 players who were the team's main third baseman for just one year. Here's the breakdown.
Ugly, because there are so many decisions that end up being just short-term ones, and, as you'll see later, just about none of them rendered good results. Change is not a bad thing, but overall, you don't want to make extra decisions if you can avoid them. Having an acceptable player sit in a position for six years, like a Stripp or a Cox, leaves you problem-solving resources to attack big problems. There will always be big problems and always be a limited amount of research resources to throw at them, so churning mediocrities bleeds off resources that could yield higher returns if aimed elsewhere.
But Dodger Demand Side Staffing Challenge #1 was conscious. The organization, like many others, didn't value the position very highly, so tended to make decisions as though the outcomes wouldn't matter much, so tended to end up with players who wouldn't matter much.
Dodger Demand Side Staffing Challenge #2 was a limitation. The Dodgers didn't tend to acquire strong 3rd basemen when incoming players, pre-farm system, were a free-for-all. And once there was a farm system, they didn't tend to produce 3rd basemen from their minor leagues.
The table below lists the main Dodger third basemen from 1900 through 1972. I show it because you can see the different kinds of decisions the Dodgers thought they were making to stabilize the position. RPRO is my own offensive index, where 100 is the league average; Apps is approximate plate appearances, Roba is the batter's on-base percentage as a ratio of the leagues that year (higher is better), and Rslg is the batter's slugging percentage as a ratio of the leagues that year (higher is better).
It really is a long parade to the graveyard. There are guys who were once great but at the tail end of their careers (like Lave Cross in 1900, Dick Allen in 1971), guys the Bums wanted in their line-up but needed to squeeze them in at third because they had prospects in their old position (Jimmy Johnston in 1920-21, Jackie Robinson in 1955 and Pee Wee Reese in 1957), versatile guys they kept on the roster would could be plugged in at third when all else failed (Jim Gilliam), a guy who was a great hitter, but couldn't play the more challenging position of shortstop in their opinion (Arky Vaughan in 1942-43) and guys who just couldn't field the position but hit enough to be moved to another (like Steve Garvey, 1972).
There are some great nicknames on this list. Emil "Escape Hatch" Batch, Frenchy, Cookie, Junior, Pee Wee, Spider, Gink, Eggie, Doc, and The Dixie Thrush. And that's all, from an organizational view, that was great. In the last seven years of this stretch, it looks like they were aiming for offense, but they plugged a different player in every year. No one could hold onto the position. It was a bloodbath. In '23 - '29, it was the same thing; seven players in seven years. In seven different years during that run, there were so many different players who played third, the guy who played it the most had 300 or fewer plate appearances (I'm omitting 1946, a year distorted by post-WWII business environment, and 1965, because while Kennedy played in more games that year at third than Gilliam, Gilliam had more at bats).
The Dodgers just combined a lack of intense concern with an inability to come up with young players who were good enough to make a career of the position. They threw half-axed ideas at the position, repeating their pattern of futility generation after generation with less forward motion than a Philip Glass musical score.
The end of this run, btw, was the arrival of Ron "Penguin" Cey, a clearly above-the-line offensive player who was also a clearly above the line gloveman at third. Cey lasted ten years there, a comfort to the front office, though not one they seem to have taken to heart. Because when they they traded the 34-year old Penguin for a couple of prospects in 1982, they immediately reverted to their old form. Look at this trail of tears:
1983, a great-hitting butcher moved from the outfield. 1984, a young failure. 1985, a utility man getting a chance, 1986, a has-been singles hitter who couldn't field the position particularly well when he was fresh. 1987, a utility man getting a chance. 1988-90, toxic waste, and so on. Shifting what model they threw at the position, but never getting traction.
In 1998, they changed away from their pattern again. They brought in a 19-year old, Adrián Beltré , and have stuck with him since. So far, he's been a Jersey Joe Stripp...a couple of better than average years at the plate, but mostly below, a couple of better than average years with the glove, but mostly average. This year, he's doing brilliantly so far, with 10 home runs and an OPS of 1.07 in the 31 games he's appeared in. It might be a Gink Hendrick 1928 season, a little shoot of hope peeking its head temporarily above the miasma, or it might indicate a sea change in his performance and Dodger third base accomplishment.
Back to the two Dodger Demand Side Staffing Challenges: the conscious undervaluing of the position or its complexity, resulting in desultory care, and the blind spot inability to recognize quality in a specific position.
Most organizations, in and out of baseball, only need one of these to fail. The Bums managed to combine them both, and over multiple generations. Are there specific roles or jobs or positions in your organization that never seem to get filled with the right person, with the organization bouncing from mediocrity to failure and back to mediocrity without even the luck to stumble into the right person?
It happens all the time, and the bigger the organization, the more likely it is that the habit of hiring the wrong person for a specific job over and over will be welded into the organization as part of it's way of being. For that habit, let's grant each one of them the Gustave "Gee-Gee" Getz Memorial Gratuitous Alliteration Award.
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